How to support the families of people at risk of radicalisation

The fate of foreign Islamic State (IS) fighters and their families remains a heated diplomatic issue, particularly in the wake of the Turkish invasion of north-east Syria. Amid reluctance from some European countries to repatriate their citizens, Turkey has begun sending some former fighters under its control back to their home countries.

In November, the UK government announced it was bringing back a group of orphaned British children from Syria to the UK. But some of the adults in the camps in Syria have had their citizenship stripped from them.

When the British government decided to revoke the citizenship of some suspected IS members in February 2019, the father of one of the three schoolgirls who left Bethnal Green for Syria in 2015, Hussen Abase, father of Amira, pleaded that:

Twisted minds can be straightened with teamwork, with the government and family.

My own research focuses on encouraging and improving reporting of radicalisation and extremism in both the UK and Denmark, in particular looking at how to ensure those who do report such concerns are supported and empowered. The story of what’s happened in Denmark is one about family – and it helps show what is possible when families and authorities work in partnership.

The Info-House in Aarhus

Infohus, or Info-House, is a small building near the police station in Aarhus, Denmark’s second biggest city. As you enter, Info-House feels like someone’s home rather than an official building. Although other rooms are very much like any other office, the first room you are guided into has a cosy, living room feel, giving visitors the impression that they are visiting someone in their home. In fact, they are visiting a counter-terrorism specialist.

Info-House launched in 2010 as part of the “Aarhus Model”, a pilot collaboration between the Aarhus local authority and East Jutland police, focusing on prevention and rehabilitation. The Info-House provides guidance and support to vulnerable people and their families, as well as the general public and professionals. The support they provide to vulnerable people is similar to other programmes, such as the Channel programme in the UK, part of government’s Prevent strategy. One main difference in Denmark, however, is that the family gets support too, not just the returnee or person at risk of radicalisation.

One project there called the Parent Network acted like group counselling for families in a similar situation and was open to both parents of vulnerable people and their siblings over 18-years-old. The programme is currently on hold due to resource issues.

During my research interviews with people who used Info-House and worked there, I found that active engagement with families, including the Parent Network, had helped more families come forward. My analysis of data from Info-House found that this active family engagement had resulted in a 63% year-on-year increase of reports by families between 2011 and 2017.

The people who work at Info-House are also big believers in dialogue and informal discussions. Once they receive a call, they approach the vulnerable person, as well as the person who made the report, for a casual coffee to discuss it further. If vulnerabilities are spotted, work then begins with the person and their family. In the UK, there is also an informal discussion prior to reporting, but this mainly takes place when the person knows who their assigned local Prevent coordinator is or has a good relationship with the neighbourhood police.

The team at Info-House are also relatable and empathic and try to connect to the people they work with on a personal level, which helps to break down barriers and encourage strong relationships. They don’t try to judge the families – instead they ensure they are supported. In one case, Info-House worked with a high-profile former jihadi who ended up reporting her own two sons to prevent them from travelling to Syria.

In the UK, working with families does not happen at this level. Some families in the UK are offered a liaison officer, but the provision and expertise of these officers can be inconsistent due to lack of resources. Instead, the detectives on the case may support these families, which can make the process feel focused on getting police intelligence.

Empathy needed

Radicalisation and extremism are complex and ambiguous notions – not to mention highly stigmatised. But families are often left alone and uncertain about what to do if their loved one becomes at risk. This leaves them vulnerable to organisations that can take advantage of them by providing them with unhelpful advice. Often, these families are the forgotten victims of radicalisation, extremism and terrorism.

They need a safe place to discuss their concerns without fear of repercussion, where they can access professionals who deal with such matters on a daily basis, and preferably one point of contact.

By including these families in a response to radicalisation, the responsibility of prevention and safeguarding is not taken away from them. They are still given a sense of control over the situation. An engagement officer I spoke to in Aarhus put it perfectly:

The parents are the most important thing … We try to give the responsibility back to them in an organised way. We cannot be the second parents, it is not realistic.

The people I spoke to who had reported a family member wanted a supportive place that they could go to for help. These families judge themselves harsher than anyone else – what they need is support.